Turning your product idea into reality

By Cathy and Chad Kropff

Have you ever thought, “Oh if someone would just make it this way, then it would be great?” or, “This is a great idea; maybe others would like it too?” Four and a half years ago, my husband, Chad, said, “Oh, I wish someone would make a better pitching rubber.” After hearing this same statement for more than a decade, I finally said, “Well, let’s make it!” In the summer of 2011, our entrepreneurial inventors’ journey began. What a journey it has been.

During the past few years, we have often been asked, “How did you do it?” Others have inquired, “I have a great idea, how do I get started?” We want to share with our journey with you, and some tips that we have learned along the way to turning our idea into reality.

There are five major areas to focus on when developing your idea: protecting your idea; marketing and researching; financing; manufacturing; and establishing mentors.

Protecting your idea

Patent rules have changed recently. Now, the first person to the patent office gets the patent. In the past, you only had to document the date and time of your idea creation in an inventor’s notebook or journal. This area of focus is very important and can be mind-boggling. Keep your idea to yourself as you research online to see if someone has beaten you to the punch. Also you need to get familiar with your competitors’ information.

After you have finished researching online if you are convinced that your idea is still the best, and no one else is close to your idea, the next step is to research current and pending patents at the United States Patent and Trademark Office at http://www.uspto.gov/patents-application-process/search-patents.

There are a variety of patent options available. Make sure to select the right one for your idea. Options include: utility, design, provisional, plant, and reissue. We decided to file for utility patents, which are also referred to as patents for invention. If approved, your idea is protected for 20 years from the filing date of your patent application.

For our first product, the pitching rubber, we filed a provisional patent with Legal Zoom for less than $400. The provisional patent gave us a year to figure out if our idea was feasible before filing for the utility patent. During that year, we met with three different patent attorneys to determine with whom we wanted to work. We filed our first utility patent for the adult and youth pitching rubbers in 2012. After many revisions, interactions with the patent office, gathering testimonials, and a phone interview, our pitching rubber patent was finally approved in 2015. The average cost for a patent ranges from $10,000-$15,000. It is very important to do your idea research before spending money on patent and attorney fees.

Another part of protecting your idea is to make sure to have anyone you discuss your idea with sign a non-disclosure/non-compete form. There are a variety of these forms available online or contact us for a copy of our form. When we first started out, we were very intimidated about asking people to sign the form. To our relief, we found that many of the true business professionals we talked to were used to signing non-disclosure forms. If someone refuses to sign your form, move on. Do not deal with them. They are not worth the risk.

Marketing and researching your idea

Now that you have protected your idea, it is time to do additional research. To figure out your target market, do a Strengths-Weakness-Opportunities-Threats (SWOT) analysis to determine if your idea is feasible in the market. Will people pay for your product idea? This area of focus helps you determine if you can manufacture and distribute your product at a low enough cost so that your retail price is reasonable. It also helps you determine what avenues you can use to market your idea. Many universities have marketing and business students who can help with this step. One important thing to determine in this step is what your main purpose or mission is. We decided that our main company mission is to develop tools and equipment to help groundskeepers save time and money. We use social media, a website, videos, and marketing emails as our main marketing avenues due to our very low marketing budget.


Starting a business is expensive. There are multiple fees such as corporation fees, business license fee, sales tax fees and the list goes on and on. Writing a business plan and projecting your revenue and expenses will help you decide if you want to go forward. Once you decide to go forward, you will need to determine what type of business you want to start, i.e. corporation, partnership, or single ownership.

Getting start-up financing is not easy, but fortunately it is now easier than it was when we started in 2011. Crowd funding, microloans, credit lines and new online options such as Kabbage, Accion USA, SoMoLend, Opportunity Fund, and Kiva Step Ahead Loan Program all help start-ups fund their businesses. Chad and I decided we did not want to ask family and friends for loans or seek investors, so we decided to continue working full-time at Virginia Tech while developing our business. We also used credit cards and recently switched banks in order to secure a line of credit. Financing your business can be very stressful. Don’t give up. Work with what you have. After hearing “no” many times, we started hearing “yes.” Start-up costs vary depending on your business idea, but can range from $10,000-$100,000. We started off at the higher end of that range due to manufacturing and patent costs.

Manufacturing your idea/product

The manufacturing step almost stopped us in our tracks. Actually, it did delay us for about 6 months. The first manufacturers we talked to quoted a cost of $300 for each pitching rubber plus $30,000 start-up fees for tooling, shipping, and packaging. We knew that there was no way we could sell a pitching rubber for a retail price of $350-$400. We continued searching for other manufacturers.

Searching for manufacturers is time consuming. Make sure to understand each quote. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. We called and emailed at least two dozen different manufacturers before selecting on one located 45 minutes from our home. Our selected manufacturer owns a sister company in China, and helped us develop engineering CAD drawings, select a supplier, and produce samples for testing. We negotiated with our manufacturer to pay half of the tooling costs up front and the other half when the samples arrived and were approved. We also arranged for a 30-day/60-day payment plan for inventory.

Manufacturing is an area that can be very frustrating because you have to give up some control of the process to others. Once we place an order, it takes about 6-8 weeks for product to arrive from China. We tried desperately to find a manufacturer in the United States, but the price of natural rubber is so high that we have to continue working with oversea companies. Many inventors recommend having three manufacturers that you work with. We are still working on finding two additional satisfactory manufacturers.

Testing your products is another huge part of manufacturing. We did not test our first product long enough before ordering additional units. This was a costly mistake. We now know to test each product for at least 6 months to a year before placing a large order. As a result of listening to our customers’ feedback, we redesigned our products multiple times. Our redesigns were also based upon Chad’s own experience with our products. Our first tamp handle was 6 feet tall. After hitting himself in the head while helping at the local minor league ballpark, Chad reduced the height of the tamp handle!

Last December we sold three quarters of our products’ shipment before its arrival from China. Once the products arrived, we were devastated when we inspected the shipment. We found the pitching rubbers and home plates discolored; they were not white. We also discovered that the glue used on our home plates was not the correct glue. The supplier had also used recycled rubber and leftover rubber for part of our order instead of using only natural rubber. We worked persistently and tirelessly with our manufacturer to find a new supplier in China. We worked with our customers to make sure they received product they were happy with, or we issued a refund. It was a very tough winter for us, but we have finally found a new supplier with our manufacturer, and recently received a shipment with excellent products that passed our inspection.

Establishing mentors/resources

Before we embarked on our journey, we sought the advice of many professionals who we now consider mentors. Make sure to take the time to develop your mentoring team. Find the small business and inventor resources in your area. Our team includes: the Roanoke Regional Small Business Development Center, The VT KnowledgeWorks (an entrepreneurship organization at Virginia Tech), a patent attorney, a certified public account, a business insurance agent, a financial institution, our family and friends, and of course the STMA and its members. We continuously are adding to our mentoring team, and recently added a China business consultant.

One of the most important things to remember is that this journey will have setbacks. That is okay, because you can learn from each setback. We certainly have. The best advice we heard when starting out was from one of our mentors, Jim Flowers, director of VT KnowledgeWorks. He said, “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” This is so true. You will be outside your comfort zone during many of these steps, but keep going if your heart, soul and mind are happy. We have enjoyed our journey of ups and downs and continue to learn and love what we do. I hope these tips help you turn your idea into reality.

Cathy and Chad Kropff are founders and owners of Bulldog Field Equipment, www.bulldogfieldequipment.squarespace.com